As kids getting off the school bus in Bastrop, La., in the 1960s, Joey and Trent Hemphill would often see a tour bus parked in their driveway.
The boys' mother was related to the members of the gospel-singing Goodman family, so the group's customized, shiny bus became a familiar sight, especially when the Happy Goodman Family was swinging through Louisiana.
A few years later, Joey and Trent would hop aboard a similar bus with their parents as part of their own family gospel group, The Hemphills.
"We've had diesel in our veins since the beginning," says Joey, who eventually moved with Trent and their parents to Nashville, Tenn., to further the Hemphills' career.
After two decades of performing, Joey and Trent left the road in 1989 to follow their dream of keeping other entertainers rolling. Today, their Hemphill Brothers Coach Co. supplies top-of-the-line, often lavish touring buses for a who's who of singers, actors, superstar athletes and even presidents.
Taking out the bumps
The top entertainer bus company in the country, Hemphill Coach has the largest solely owned fleet in the industry, customizing, servicing and leasing buses to clients across a spectrum of professions. As one of about a dozen professional coach companies in America, the Hemphill brothers had 12 of the top 50 touring acts in 2008 as clients.
"Our goal has always been to take the bumps out of the road for our clients," Joey says.
With more than 2 million miles logged on buses themselves during their gospel careers, the brothers have a keen understanding of just what someone else needs to keep a trip relaxing and trouble free.
Liam Birt, tour manager for the rock group Rush, has nothing but praise for the brothers and their business. "I've used the Hemphills on Rush, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queensryche, and Crash Test Dummies tours, all with outstanding results," he says. "They understand we don't work in a 9-to-5 environment and that they need to be able to reach out 24/7 to keep these tours rolling. Like myself, it's how they grew upon the road."
'Everybody had a bus'
Joey, 50, and Trent, 49, were surrounded by buses from their earliest days. As members of a gospel-singing family, with relatives who were also professional gospel performers, it seemed like tour buses were fairly common modes of transportation.
"Our aunts and uncles had one, so we just thought everybody had a bus, you know," Trent says with a laugh.
The boys took to road life quickly during their touring days. When Trent was 19, he and Joey convinced their father to sell them two older buses he had purchased so they could start a sideline business.
"We bought two '65 models that were already worn out and started leasing them," Joey says.
Two years later, in 1980, the brothers officially launched the Hemphill Brothers Coach Co. with $500 cash and a $50,000 note co-signed by their dad. They began purchasing other used buses and growing their fleetand handling all the other responsibilities of owning and running a business.
Joey and Trent did everything from washing dirty buses to ripping out and converting interiors, all the while juggling their own singing and recording careers. "We actually traveled on the road for almost 10 years after we started our company, so we had two businesses going at once," Joey remembers.
In those days, running a business from the road wasn't easy. It was before cell phones were readily available, so the brothers had to make calls and handle business from hotel rooms or pay phones. And with no support staff to pick up the slack, they pretty much did everything themselves.
"I remember one time right before walking onstage, we got a call that a client had a blown engine," Joey says. "We had to go onstage knowing we had to deal with that when we came off. Needless to say, it was hard to smile!"
The Hemphills inherited their work ethic and sense of responsibility from the gospel world, and they find their faith and values have helped their company reach the level of success it enjoys today.
"Looking back on 30 years in the business, we can see that much of our success has come from staying true to the Christian values we grew up with and remain committed to today," Joey says.
A who's who of customers
At the sprawling headquarters outside of Nashville in the community of Whites Creek, 60 employees hustle around the 15,000-square-foot offices and conversion facility. A 28,000-square-foot garage can hold any of their 80 buses for servicing, cleaning or painting. The office halls read like a who's who of popular music, with plaques from Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Alan Jackson, Tina Turner and many others adorning the walls.
Down a hall, a photo of Oprah Winfrey with Joey and Trent alongside her customized "Wildest Dreams" coach is autographed by the TV queen herself.
Even actors get on board with the Hemphills. "Sandra Bullock came in herself to get her bus," Trent recalls. "And Tom Hanks celebrated his birthday by riding around the country with his buddies in a coach we customized for him."
For nearly a decade, TV's Good Morning America crew used Hemphill coaches to travel across America. And it's no wonder, since the coaches can be as luxurious as a five-star hotel. The Hemphills have installed hot tubs, a piano, even a school classroom with computer stations and chalkboards.
"A lot of artists don't even get hotels anymore," Trent says. "They have all the latest amenities on the bus: convection ovens, fridge/freezers, washers and dryers, king-size beds, showers."
With even former president George W. Bush among their clientele, the Hemphills have built a list of customers that reaches far beyond their gospel-singing core. Looking back on three decades, it's hard for the brothers to believe sometimes just how far they've come on $500, two used coaches and a dream.
"I remember building a four-bay garage years ago, and we could get all our buses in there," Joey says. "And we were happy. We thought we had arrived! But we just kept on setting bigger goals-because if you actually reach the ones you set, you'd better set new ones!"